For 37 years, Anna Nassif's life has revolved around her
career as a professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin in
Madison. In addition to teaching, she has traveled the world
studying dance, spending one sabbatical year in India on a
Rockefeller grant and another in southeast Asia.
But next June, Professor Nassif's routine will change
dramatically. She will clear out her office, bid colleagues and
students goodbye, and retire. Although her decision was voluntary,
the prospect initially filled her with anxiety.
"It felt like being on a mountaintop and falling off," says
Nassif, who is single. "It needn't be like that, but that's the
first reaction to the realization that a very important part of
your life is coming to a close."
As the ranks of working women grow, this kind of response,
once the province of men, is growing more common. Women now make up
60 percent of the 65-and-over population in the United States. By
2010, almost half of adult women will be at least 50. As they
approach retirement, many face complex social and economic issues.
"There's a notion that retirement isn't going to be hard for
women, because their lives involve more than a job, and they take
care of a home and people," says Robert Weiss, a senior fellow at
the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts,
Boston. "That's utter nonsense. It's just as likely that work
becomes as essential a part of women's lives as it becomes of
Sandra Lerner of Newton, Mass., a psychologist who took an
early retirement this summer, says, "We're still the Pepsi
generation - I have no models for this. When I look at my parents
or my in-laws, their later years were very different from what ours
are. Shuffleboard isn't going to do it anymore."
In a study by the National Policy and Resource Center on
Women and Aging at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., women
were far more likely than men to say they missed friendships at
work. Explains Phyllis Mutschler, the center's director, "They lost
not only the structure of the workday but meaningful ties with
coworkers." Even so, once these women negotiated the sometimes
difficult transitions of the first year, they said they were happy.
A welcome change
Sheila Atchley, professor of sociology and gerontology at
Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, reports similar findings, saying,
"Socially, the vast majority of women very much enjoy retirement."
Their families also become beneficiaries. Dr. Atchley sees "a
very positive aspect in terms of relationships with grandchildren
in retirement, because women have more time to be the kind of
grandmother they want to be." Marital happiness often improves as
well. "Their children are gone, their stresses at work are gone.
They have more opportunity to spend time on their relationship, and
on things they want to do."
Still, some married women face very real conflicts in the
timing of their retirement. Ronald Manheimer, director of the North
Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in Asheville, explains that
most often the husband has worked longer and wants to retire. "The
wife says, 'I don't want to do that yet.' These women want their
day of glory too."
Dr. Lerner knows the dilemma firsthand. Because of her
husband's health, the couple recently decided to spend more time in
Florida, which required her to end her private practice.
"That created some issues for us," she says. "I felt I was
at the peak of my professional abilities. I wouldn't have chosen to
leave now. But when pushed to make the ultimate decision, of course
I chose the relationship with my husband over my career. …